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Tar Heel Hangover: Bringing home the bell

The up and down season continues.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s game, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

First and foremost, thanks to all of the members of the armed services, past and present, for your service to the country. Without your sacrifice, we would not enjoy the freedoms that we have. Home is a better place because of you.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

A blowout win over another in-state foe was just what the doctor ordered. The Heels brought home the Victory Bell with a dominating performance that included a 28-0 lead after barely more than a quarter. If the offense would have kept the pedal down, it is entirely possible that they could have put up 100 points.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

Keep the pressure on. Saturday was an easy victory because the Carolina offense was aggressive early and put points on the board.

More than the play calling specifically, it was the generally aggressive attitude of the coaching staff that set the tone. The opening drive was a quick march down the field that appeared to stall inside Duke’s 10-yard line. After an incomplete pass, a run, and a scramble, the Heels faced a fourth down from the 2-yard line. What may have been a field goal attempt earlier this year was instead a Sam Howell pass to Javonte Williams for the touchdown. That call set the tone.

Ahead 14-0 with three minutes left in the first quarter, Carolina again faced fourth down. This time it was at the Duke 33-yard line where a Williams run netted the first down. Taken in a vacuum, this play may have been more a choice not to kick a 50-yard field goal than an aggressive offensive call. Given the broader context, however, the call reflected a dedicated philosophy to give the offense a chance.

With six minutes left in the half, Williams was once again called upon on fourth down from outside the Duke 30-yard line. He once again responded, this time with a 32-yard run for a touchdown. If there was any doubt about the outcome of the game, this play sealed it. While a long field goal would have padded the lead, this play was a spirit-breaking game ender.

For good measure, Carolina attempted a fourth-fourth down conversion with three minutes left in the half. From about midfield, Howell found Michael Carter on 4th and 3 to move the chains. Another conversion, another aggressive call, another touchdown ultimately capped the drive.

These four plays summed up a 42-point first half and demonstrated the power of a big lead.

Key stat for the week.

The key stat remains fourth down conversions. It is one thing for the coaching staff to be aggressive but another for the plays to be successful. Coming in to Saturday, Carolina had converted only 2 of 6 fourth down attempts (including the brutal drop against Florida State on the final drive). Saturday, the team was 4-4 (all in the first half). That is a lot of momentum generated from a potent offense.

These conversions are absolutely critical. The defense is thin at spots and has shown a difficulty in stopping opponents for long stretches. As I wrote last week, I believe the key is to keep pressure on opposing offenses with points rather than blitzes. This means taking chances on fourth and short with the ball versus trying to make a stop on defense in crucial moments.

When you believe you have one of the best offenses in the country, the smart play is to keep them on the field and force the other side to match the output. Most teams can not do that.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Carolina looks for the season sweep of the state when facing Wake Forest on Saturday. The Demon Deacons lost their first two games to Clemson and NC State before taking a week off due to the pandemic. The last four games have all been victories and the team is on a roll. The Wake Forest defense has been playing very well, holding Syracuse to 14 points, Virginia to 23, and Virginia Tech to just 16. Turnovers were the key in all three games as Wake forced three while not giving up any. Taking care of the ball should be an area of focus this weekend for the Heels.

I like the matchup Saturday. The Tar Heel offense will have a chance to prove that it is as good as it looked last week. This is the perfect tune-up ahead of back to back games against top 10 opponents.

Final Thoughts

Keep the offense churning and the points coming. Control the ball and win the game. This week is the next step forward for a program looking to exert control over the state as it moves to the national stage.